The Shape of Islamic History

By Ovamir Anjum

How should one imagine the shape of Islamic history? What bearing does that have on the shape of Islam’s future?

The West thought the future was Star Wars, but it’s looking more likely to be Dune. This was the wry but apt framing of our historical predicament offered by the English philosopher John Gray in a recent interview.[1] But though these two science-fiction stories, possibly the most influential of the twentieth century, appear to share nothing in plot, style, or theme, their otherwise distinct visions of the future bear at least one uncanny commonality. In Star Wars, the precocious rebel Luke Skywalker is initiated into an ancient religious order to fight a space-faring, planet-destroying Empire; in Dune, the dukes and barons of a neo-feudal interstellar empire wage war over a resource-rich desert planet inhabited by religious warriors. In either case, the medieval past returns as progress. The persistence of the past in these popular futures might have seemed at best a quaint anachronism, an aesthetic flourish, to the Western academics of the 1960s and 1970s, committed as they were to the gospel of secularization. With hindsight, however, these landmarks of popular culture seem more prescient than the soothsayers of the social sciences. Far from fanciful thought experiments, they seem to have somehow anticipated a truth that becomes clearer with every passing year: post-post-modernity, whatever form it assumes, will do so under the shadows of the religious past.

Our imagination of our trajectory into the future—and our beliefs about the kind of world we inhabit, the kind of action we undertake, and the kind of hope we allow ourselves to entertain—are inextricably connected. Abū al-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī’s pessimistic view that prophesied the extinction of the sharīʿa through the passing away of its master jurists (mujtahids) as possible, even imminent, was posed against the Muʿtazilī optimism grounded in a certain objectivist understanding of ethical norms which imposed on God the duty to act in the best human interest. Some members of Juwaynī’s own school, and nearly all other theological schools, embraced some kind of optimism but on different theological grounds. The traditionalist position favoring optimism was championed by the Ḥanbalīs Abū Yaʿlā (d. 458/1066) and al-Kalwadhānī (d. 511/1116), and later it was developed by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328). Important contributions subsequently came from non-Ḥanbalīs like al-Shāṭibī (d. 790/1388) and, in the early modern period, Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī (d. 1176/1762), whose wholly new and fascinating recasting of sharʿ ī optimism will be the focus of a later essay.  With the Zaydī-turned-Sunnī scholar al-Shawkānī (d. 1250/1834) and his many successors, this argument would take a radical form by denying the need for madhhabs altogether.[2]

From Juwaynī’s writing, we can infer at least two interrelated reasons for his declinist tendency. The first is his own anecdotal observation of declining interest in and mastery of sharīʿa knowledge, an observation potentially attributable to the pedantic disappointment in the younger generation that every teacher seems to entertain:

I have imagined the dissolution of sharīʿa, the extinction of those in charge of it and the disinterest of people in it… I have also seen that the great eponyms of the legal schools once defunct are not replaced and those who seek knowledge are satisfied with superficialities… Therefore, I know that should this state of affairs persist, the ulama of sharīʿa will soon become extinct and there will remain nothing after them but their books.[3]

The wording Juwaynī employs, however, seems to paraphrase a adīth tradition. He quotes that tradition explicitly at the very end of his treatise when promoting the idea of extinction against some skeptical members of his own school: “Knowledge will be taken away so much so that two men will argue about a clear obligation but will not find anyone who will know God’s judgment in the matter.”[4] This tradition is not regarded as reliable by adīth experts, but a similar one makes the point Juwaynī means to make:

Allah does not wrench away knowledge [from people’s memory] but rather through the death of scholars along with their knowledge, who leave behind ignorant people, who are asked and they answer with their opinion, being misled themselves and misleading others.[5]

Juwaynī, however, is apparently neither familiar with nor moved chiefly by these adīth reports, but by theological polemics in which his commitment is to a voluntarist vision of ethical knowledge, otherwise known as the divine command theory of ethics.

In the centuries after Juwaynī, adīth-inclined scholars in each school engaged in a sprawling dialogue whose key contours are found  in Ibn Ḥajar’s well-known commentary on al-Bukhārī. The debate can be summed up as an attempt to reconcile between three types of reports:[6]

  1. Ḥadīth traditions that promise that a group of believers will be steadfast upon the truth until the Day of Judgment, fighting for God against those who fight and betray them.
  2. Ḥadīth traditions that speak of how God takes away knowledge, not by making scholars forget, but by replacing them with people of opinion.
  3. Ḥadīth traditions that speak of apocalyptic events before the Day of Judgment, including the death of all believers.

The adīth group (2) could be interpreted as a censure of the people of opinion by the people of adīth (this is clear from the chapter under which al-Bukhārī places it). Alternatively, it could be taken al-Ṭabarī, but shot down by Ibn Ḥajar because of the universal implication of group (3)). This objection is addressed by Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd (d. 702/1302), who argues for precluding the apocalyptic adīths that speak of extraordinary events in the end-times from the discussion about “normal” time.[7]

Like Juwaynī, most Muslim scholars across the schools seem to have embraced elements of a declinist and anti-progressivist view of history, in which every generation was worse than its predecessor, and yet they also found ways to complicate this shape of history. At this point, we can afford only the briefest allusion to these complex views and their textual sources (see Ibn Ḥajar’s Fatḥ al-bārī for a discussion of most of the following reports; the classification is mine[8]):

  1. Sunnī adīth traditions declaring the first generation of his community (umma) coeval with the Prophet the best of generations, followed by two or three generations that followed, after which lying becomes common.
  2. Ḥadīth traditions promising a God-sent reviver of religion at the turn of every century.
  3. Ḥadīth traditions declaring agnosticism about which generation is the best (e.g.: my umma is like the rain, one doesn’t know if its beginning is better or its end), and others enumerating virtues of later generations.
  4. Other traditions that complicate this picture further, like one prophesying that Islam will become a stranger just as it was when it began.

If one maps out the shape of history implied in these traditions, a complex picture emerges. The group 4 traditions appear to delineate a future of perpetual decline, but upon careful examination, they cover only the immediate three or four generations. Group 5 suggests a future of successive crests and troughs. Group 6 suggests greater merit of later generations, one likening this community to rain, whose aftermath may be better than its beginning. Group 7 suggests a rise and then fall, such that the true believers will once again become like strangers at some later point.

If we turn to the Qur’ān, we find high praise for the virtues of the early generations, among whom there will be many more supremely righteous men, whereas the number of the righteous will be smaller among the later ones (Q. 56:13-4). But exegetes wonder if these verses mean that the righteous were more numerous among the earlier prophets’ communities compared to the Muhammadan umma—this umma. Others believe that the verse addresses the Muhammadan community, thus stressing the merit of early Muslims.[9] Cumulatively, these texts suggest the unparalleled superiority of the first generations of Muslims, but do not necessarily establish the paradigm of a perpetual decline.

Although not quite the same, these texts and the discourses around them are linked to our inquiry about the extinction of the sharīʿa. One could assume that the higher merit in afterlife is coterminous with the knowledge of the sharīʿa, and the extinction of the latter would negatively affect the former. This is not quite as simple in Juwaynī’s model, however, for the sharīʿa as a body of knowledge, in the way Juwaynī valorizes, does not come into existence until after the passing of the most virtuous generations. This is also clear in Juwaynī’s insistence that even though the Prophet’s companions like Abū Bakr and ʿUmar were superior in merit and knowledge to the master jurists like al-Shāfiʿī, only the latter’s school should be followed since they were properly systematized. This ambivalence is fully on display in Juwaynī and other scholars of the classical period. As I show in detail elsewhere, Juwaynī (as well as his disciple, al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111)) argues for the superiority of later scholars in that their knowledge is more systematic and better evidenced, and yet reverts in other writings to stressing the greater virtue and intelligence of the way of the predecessors.[10]

The shape of Islamic history, in short, could not be taken as a straight line of perpetual decline by the classical tradition. Juwaynī’s declinism and pessimism about the sharīʿa’s future was driven by complex theological polemics, and interrupted by his other commitments.

This first, millennium-long round of the debate on the life and death of the sharīʿa remained highly theoretical. Apart from a few moments, like the challenge posed by the Yāsā (oral law code) of Chingiss Khan to Muhammadan sharīʿa in the century following the Mongols’ conquest of Baghdad,  the primacy of the sharīʿa in the lands of Islam was never in doubt. What motivated the debate, therefore, were theoretical concerns in the realm of high speculation, driven in part by adīth reports about the loss or persistence of knowledge. It is in terms of interest in such abstract discourse rather than concerns about the suitability of the sharīʿa to changing times that the early debate about the fatigue of the sharīʿa as well as the well-known debate on the status of “the gate of ijtihād” should be understood.

By the start of the second millennium of Islam, however, the stakes had changed. Particularly on the edges of Islamdom, as in India following the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (d. 1014/1605) and eventual Maratha takeover in the mid-eighteenth century, the sharīʿa felt less secure than ever. Concerns that were to become ubiquitous in the subsequent centuries found powerful expression in the writings of the great polymath Shah Walī Allāh of Delhi. As we will see in the next essay, ideas of revivification and rejuvenation on the one hand, and reform and reconstruction on the other, have since become the key concerns of much of Muslim thinking and action.


[1] Novara Media, “Everything You Know About the Future is Wrong.,” interview by Aaron Bastani, Novara Media, YouTube, October 22, 2023, video, 1:29:09,

[2] See Ahmad Dallal, Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); and Muhammad Khalid Masud, Islamic Legal Philosophy: A Study of Abū Isḥāq Al-Shāṭibī’s Life and Thought (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1977).

[3] Juwaynī, Ghiyāth al-umam, quoted in Wael B. Hallaq, “Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16, no. 1 (1984): 14.

[4] Abū al-Ma’alī al-Juwaynī, Ghiyāth al-umam fī ‘ltiyāth al-ẓulam, ed. ‘Abd al-‘Azīm al-Dīb (Qatar, [1401]), 523.

[5] Bukhārī 7307, K. al-Iʿtiṣām bi’l-kitāb wa’l-sunna.

[6] Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-bārī (Egypt: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1380-90), 13:286–87.

[7] Ahmad Atif Ahmad, The Fatigue of the Sharīʿa, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 124.

[8] Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, 7:3–7.

[9] Ibn ʿAṭiyya, al-Muḥarrar al-wajīz (Qatar: Wizārat al-awqāf, 1436/2015), 9:352–3, under verse 56:13–4.

[10] Ovamir Anjum, “Cultural Memory of the Pious Ancestors (Salaf) in al-Ghazālī,” Numen 58 (2011): 344–74.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Ovamir Anjum, The Shape of Islamic History, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 11, 2024),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Ovamir Anjum, “The Shape of Islamic History,” Islamic Law Blog, January 11, 2024,

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